We don’t expect very much from babies. They are supposed to be cute and cuddly but almost everything else has to be done for them. They can’t walk, talk, eat without assistance or clean up after themselves. And when one does something ridiculous it’s almost natural to say, “Oh, they don’t know any better; they’re just a baby.” But what if, in some ways, they did know better? In his new book Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale, would argue that they do.
Through his research at Yale and consulting the research of others, Bloom has found that even very small babies as young as three months have a moral compass, a sense of right and wrong, that they use to evaluate the people and the world around them. This sense, acquired at such a young age or perhaps even innate, can influence the moral development of a person through adulthood. But this nascent morality has its limits. Bloom describes how babies and young children are also less compassionate towards strangers and develop cultural biases that can lead to such negative behaviors as bigotry and indifference in the face of suffering.
Though his research is very new and his conclusions contain a fair bit of supposition, Bloom makes a very persuasive argument that our moral development and sense of justice is established at an astonishingly young age, and that it affects us throughout our lives. This is a great pick for those interested in evolutionary biology, psychology, childhood development or the study of ethics.
How much of the information you “know” is actually misinformation in disguise? Maybe your first grade teacher simplified a few things in history class, or science hadn’t quite caught up with reality yet, or your parents were just telling you what their parents told them. All (well, some) are revealed in The De-Textbook: The Stuff You Didn’t Know About the Stuff You Thought You Knew by the editors of Cracked.com, a U.S.-based humor website.
With a tongue-in-cheek, often slyly humorous style, The De-Textbook takes you from the basic things we are doing wrong everyday (like breathing and sleeping) through more advanced misconceptions in biology, history and psychology, to name a few. This is definitely a book geared toward a more adult audience, as some of the more subtle jokes and innuendos may be confusing to a younger audience, and that's not counting an entire chapter on sex education. Each section is filled with short snippets of information that are hilariously presented accompanied by numerous pictures and illustrations, also hilariously presented. If we had textbooks this engaging in school, maybe we all would have actually learned something.
So if you’re curious (or rather, suspicious) about whether ostriches really hide their heads in the sand, or whether the Dark Ages were really all that dark, or perhaps you're wondering how many planets there really are in the Solar System and why scientists can’t seem to make up their minds about it, The De-Textbook is a great place to start. Trivia buffs and fans of Cracked or similar humor sites like The Oatmeal will especially enjoy this one.
Looking for something a little more substantial than your average beach read, but not ready to make the 350-page commitment to the latest and greatest literary masterpiece? Karen Russell, author of Pulitzer Prize finalist Swamplandia!, is ready to oblige with her second short story compilation, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Darkly humorous and always at least a little bit off-kilter, these eight tales sparkle with complex and fully realized characters that often can be so difficult to achieve in such a brief number of pages.
Though they are each quite different, all the stories share a common concern with perception that is repeatedly a driving psychological force for the characters, both internally and externally. Russell investigates how a person’s view of herself, of others, and of her surroundings affects how she acts and reacts. In some stories the manifestation of this interaction is stranger than in others. One character fights bitterness and hopelessness with determined optimism and disregard for his own illogic when year after year his team meets with inevitable defeat in the Antarctic. In one of the darker stories, a young woman’s acceptance of her very physical transformation into a silk-producing creature becomes the means of her own escape from bondage. And in the title story, a vampire and his wife who long for relief from their endless thirst find an illusory succor in sucking on lemons rather than necks, eventually leading to the demise of their relationship.
From the absurd to the chilling to the almost not quite ordinary, Russell uses this shorter format to excellent affect, creating a subtle yearning for each story to continue. Tantalizing and thoughtful, Vampires in the Lemon Grove is bursting with short summer treats that have just enough bite to keep you reading, whether you are stuck in the airport or relaxing on the beach.
How far would you go to get out of debt? Would you sell your car? Move out of your house? Take a minimum wage job scrubbing toilets in Alaska? Ken Ilgunas, author of Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom, was willing to do almost anything to free himself from the burden of his student loans. Living as frugally as possible, he worked as an Alaskan janitor, hitchhiked his way across the country, and lived in a van to pursue his dream of a debt-free life. With the ideals of Thoreau and the heart of Kerouac, Ilgunas’ journey from loan-ridden student to financially-independent ascetic is in turns humorous, touching, and inspiring.
Ilgunas started his college career similar to many millennials in the mid-2000s, largely oblivious to the quiet specter of loan debt that would slowly accrue over the course of his degree. Purposeless and skill-less, he graduated with a liberal arts degree, no job prospects, and a burning desire to pay off his debt as quickly as possible. But unlike other students who begin a traditional career, Ilgunas set out on a haphazard, occasionally reckless, and strangely successful quest to live as cheaply as possible while earning money in low-wage jobs in very odd circumstances. After working himself out of debt, Ilgunas vowed to remain debt-free forever while also trying to go to graduate school, a feat that seems impossible until he stumbles on the idea of eliminating housing expenses by living secretly out of his “creepy red van.”
Part social experiment, part return to the wild, part ultimate road trip, Walden on Wheels blends idealism and practicality into a remarkably effective solution to the increasingly pervasive problem of coping with a suffocating amount of debt. Millennials, parents of millennials, and those longing for financial freedom will rally around this account of a unique approach to a very common dilemma.
Housesitting is a rather ambiguous sort of activity. It isn’t really a proper job but it still comes with enough responsibilities to prevent the time spent from ever truly transforming into a vacation. Some people are better at handling this tension between obligation and pleasure than others, and occasionally accidents happen. A crystal glass might become broken, or a nick or two may appear in a previously flawless expanse of plaster. But take a particularly fragile home and add a more-than-usually disorderly house sitter and you don’t just face an accident or two; you court utter disaster. Will Wiles, in his debut novel Care of Wooden Floors, hilariously portrays the panic, guilt, and misery that one such hapless house sitter experiences during the gradual devolution of his friend’s pristine flat into complete chaos.
Wiles’ protagonist, who remains unnamed, is doing a favor for Oskar, an old school chum, by staying in his flat for a few weeks while he travels to LA to finalize his divorce. The house sitter, who is from London, takes an instant dislike to the (also unnamed) Eastern European city that the flat is in and is less than attentive to the many notes that the persnickety Oskar has left regarding the proper care of his two cats, his grand piano, and his precious pale wooden floors. Less than twenty four hours into his stay, Oskar’s meticulously maintained home has already been marred by the faint blush of a tiny wine glass stain, one that Oskar is sure not to miss. And that is just the beginning of a slowly escalating week of mishaps and casual negligence that contains as many surprises as it does calamities. This madcap misadventure is sure to delight fans of Matthew Dicks’ Something Missing, as well as psychological drama aficionados and screwball comedy enthusiasts.
Travel can be a tortuous process. First you plan your itinerary, then you pack (and pack and pack). Eventually you end up with all your belongings at the airport or the train station and your journey begins. Most often, after a few hours you have arrived at your destination with the happy knowledge that your journey is almost at an end. But what if it didn’t end? What if you kept traveling and traveling, across continents and oceans and deserts, until you had made it all the way around the world? In 1889, two women set off to do just that, racing to circumnavigate the globe by steamship and railway in no more than seventy-five days at a time when Jules Verne’s fictional hero could do no better than eighty. Matthew Goodman’s new work, Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World, chronicles both women over the course of their very long trek.
Nellie Bly, a plucky and ambitious newspaperwoman, was surprised but willing when her editor at The World asked her to try to become the fastest person to circle the Earth. Not to be outdone, The Cosmopolitan, a rival newspaper, sent out their own female journalist travelling in the opposite direction on the same day. As they sped on, Bly and Bisland suffered from seasickness, missed connections, and the vicissitudes of the weather. Interest and speculation raced along with them, especially in Bly’s case. All of America and many parts of the world were anxiously counting the minutes and seconds until the day an American girl would become the fastest woman in the world. Goodman’s well-paced and extensively researched story is quietly suspenseful and thoroughly enjoyable. History buffs, travelogue addicts, and narrative nonfiction lovers will find themselves careening through this tale of long-lost American traveling glory.
Isabella Hendemore, now Lady Trent, has had an adventuresome, successful, and often harrowing life researching the lives and habits of the mysterious, dangerous dragons that dwell across the world. Though she has written many books on the subject, rumors and speculation abound about her journeys to far-flung mountaintops and desert plains in search of these elusive creatures. But Lady Trent has finally written her memoirs, and boy are they exciting. The first volume, A Natural History of Dragons: a memoir by Lady Trent, is the beginning of a new series by fantasy author Marie Brennan set in a world where dragons are just another type of exotic creature to be studied, hunted, captured and exploited. As a child, Isabella is entranced by the small dragon-like sparklings in her garden, even though natural history is not considered a proper subject of study for young ladies. Her obsession with discovering more about dragons only grows as she matures into adulthood and gets married. When the opportunity to study dragons firsthand arises, she and her husband set out on a thrilling and groundbreaking expedition that carries a deadly cost.
As with her previous Onyx Court series, Brennan excels at breathing life into her characters and settings. She looks beyond this first book, casting out storylines that will intrigue readers to follow the adventures in later novels. So hold on to your bonnets, dust off your microscope, and get ready to dig into Brennan’s new fantastical world in A Natural History of Dragons.